The Abaca is a vital crop to the Philippine economy in a big way.  In fact, it is vital to the world’s economy and environmental care as well.  

The Philippines is the largest producer of Abaca fibers supplying about 87% of the world’s requirement for the production of cordage, specialty papers (for currency note, stencil paper, teabag, coffee filter/cup, capacitor and insulation paper, etc.), textiles, furniture and fixtures, handicrafts, novelty items, meat casing, cosmetics and skin care products, grocery bags, composites for automotive and construction and other industrial applications. 

For the past half-decade, the Abaca industry helped boost the country`s economy from its export earnings with an annual average of P4.7 billion. Mostly in the Visayas and Mindanao Islands, Abaca fibers are cultivated across 176,549 hectares of farmlands by over 122,758 farmers. And in recent years, it was perceived that aside from the substantial contributions of Abaca to the economy, its utilization can also provide numerous ecological advantages.  

Environmental benefits 

The Philippine Abaca plays a vital role in the growing global advocacy for environmental protection and forest conservation.  The strong worldwide interest and acceptability for “green” and “organic” products made manufacturing companies, especially in the US and Europe, turn to natural and bio-degradable raw materials like Abaca.  Being the strongest among all natural fibers and having superior qualities over other materials, abaca fibers are preferred over man-made fibers such as plastics and other synthetic materials by various industries around the world. 

Navies, merchant shipping companies and industries engaged in oil dredging/exploration highly prefer Abaca cordage because of its non-slipping characteristics and non-damaging effect to the marine ecosystem.  Likewise, pulp and paper industries post strong demand for abaca pulp over wood pulp because of its durability and recyclability.  Abaca papers can be recycled several times more than paper from wood or other natural fibers. 

The Abaca remains to be a good substitute for coniferous pulp in most paper products with a utilization ratio of 4 to 1, owing to Abaca’s superior tensile strength and mechanical properties.  Majority of the world’s pulp and paper companies using wood pulp has an estimated global demand of 200 million metric tons.  This is equivalent to about 50 million metric tons of abaca pulp.     

 An increased utilization of abaca pulp as raw material by paper manufacturing companies can greatly aid in addressing deforestation.  An Abaca plant can be harvested to produce useful fibers after two years from planting.  Within its short term cultivation, the Abaca farmers can produce the natural materials repeatedly needed by various industries thus saving more trees worldwide.       

Abaca is a suitable plant to be incorporated in reforestation farming system.  The plant can assist in improving biodiversity conditions if intercropped with coconut palms and other tree species within former monoculture plantations and rainforest areas. Planting Abaca can also aid in minimizing erosion and sedimentation problems in coastal areas which are breeding grounds for sea fishes.  The plant can effectively improve the water holding capacity of the soil therefore it can prevent floods and landslides as well.  Further, the Abaca does not deplete soil as much as other plants and requires less land for its production.  Abaca waste materials are used as organic fertilizer by farmers.  

Government thrust on Abaca fiber production 

The Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA), is the government agency in charge of developing and sustaining the fiber industry of the country. The agency works to achieve an industry capable of meeting the global demands for renewable and environment-friendly materials. The PhilFIDA pursues a range of programs particularly for the development of disease-resistant and high-yielding planting materials, sustainable disease management program, improved fiber extraction machines and the acquisition of sustainability certification for the production of high quality abaca fibers.  

In the quest for the production of improved Abaca varieties, the agency operates five (5) tissue culture laboratories (TCL) located in Albay, Sorsogon, Catanduanes, Leyte and Davao City mainly to develop, produce and make available to farmers high-yielding and virus-free Abaca planting materials.  

The Agency also collaborates with UP Los Banos Crop Science Cluster and UP Diliman National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology to develop Abaca varieties that possess resistance to bunchy-top disease through genetic engineering.  

Recently, Dr. Antonio Lalusin of the Institute of Plant Breeding of UPLB introduced new disease-resistant Abaca varieties aiming to help increase fiber production nationwide.  Multi-location trials of these new varieties showed resistance to Abaca bunchy top virus, but the quality of fibers extracted from these varieties are not yet conclusive.  Further studies for these varieties are still necessary in order to obtain their ability to produce fibers possessing the known superior quality of Abaca as demanded by local and international markets.       

In addition, the Agency received funding support from the Bureau of Agricultural Research for the initial construction of the PhilFIDA Biotech Laboratory Building in Quezon City.  This is envisioned to be the central laboratory of the Agency for molecular biology and biotechnology studies on fibercrops including virology. In the long term, it will also serve as a laboratory for the multiplication of genetically modified abaca with resistance to virus diseases. 

To currently battle abaca diseases, the Agency is implementing the Abaca Disease Management Program (ADMP) which has treated a total of 34,232 hectares of abaca farms in seven (7) regions and still targets to treat about 10,000 more hectares by the end of 2016.  After this program, the Agency will then undertake a comprehensive Abaca rehabilitation program for treated ADMP areas to make the farms become productive abaca plantations again.   

In helping to resolve the required growing volume of fibers by domestic and international markets, by 2018, the Agency’s goal is to increase fiber production to 104,400 metric tons through extensive farm expansion and rehabilitation of about 98,800 hectares of abaca areas. 

The PhilFIDA also engages on the enhancement of cultural practices through farm sustainability certification and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Certification of farmers.  The PhilFIDA is starting to assist the abaca farmers in acquiring sustainability certification, issued by certifying bodies recognized by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), since major international buyers of abaca will only accept fibers from certified farms in the near future.  

For this year, the PhilFIDA and the German Federal Ministry of Development Cooperation (BMZ) through German Development Cooperation (GIZ) is implementing the Abaca Sustainability Initiative Project.   Through this project, the provinces of Aklan and Iloilo will have at least 500 hectares of certified abaca production areas that can partly supply the requirement of certified abaca products and will directly benefit about 300 abaca farmers.  PhilFIDA intends to replicate this project in other Abaca producing municipalities to assure Abaca farmers of continuous market access in the coming years.  

Industry prospects 

The move to shift back to organic and natural raw materials of most industries from environment conscious countries opens limitless opportunities for the Abaca.                 The worldwide advocacy for ecological sustainability strengthens the market potential for abaca fibers in the pulp and paper industry, cordage sector, in the composite market, textile and even in lifestyle products and other industries. 

The automotive sector showed increasing new demands for Abaca fiber.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, Abaca fibers are considered the best replacement for glass fibers as a strengthening agent in multiple automotive parts.  It can reduce the weight of automotive parts and facilitates more environment-friendly production and recycling of parts.

Before, the abaca is only used for ‘soft’ applications in the automotive industry as filling materials for bolster and interior trim parts. But with its extremely high mechanical strength it is now also used for ‘harder’ applications for exterior semi-structure components and reinforced plastic parts.

Seeing the extensive environmental degradation, countries, like Japan, are also eliminating the use of plastics and replacing PVC with natural fiber materials.  Developments in the composite market require volumes of abaca for the of production telephones, sporting goods and orthopedic materials such as joint replacements and fracture healing implants.   

Abaca consumption worldwide is predicted to increase due to the introduction of new technologies as well as the rising demand for new industrial uses of abaca fibers.  Considering its extremely high tensile strength and versatility for the manufacture of a wide range of eco-friendly products, the Philippines will continue to dominate the global Abaca trade and will stay as the Abaca capital of the world for generations.